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Check Mates

A man swings a double-bladed axe at the stomach of a woman who has challenged his authority as a king's guard. She sidesteps his blow, then brings down her long sword. He eludes her blade, and both come away unscathed.

These fighters are members of the Royal Chessmen, a theatrical troupe that feigns fights during the living chess matches popular at Renaissance festivals. Michelle Roberts, owner of the sword, and her opponent, Jody Hosfeld, act out moves based on a chess game. When it comes time for their characters to battle for a spot on the board, they "fight" according to standards set by the Society of American Fight Directors to keep things safe.

Players usually dress in the period costumes of knights, queens, and the rest of the court. But Mike Baungartner, one of the group's directors, says he'll conduct upcoming games with pirate and masquerade motifs. No matter what the costume, standing around on a chess board sounds hot and tedious. But because writers and choreographers plan out each game in advance, matches move along much more quickly than a real game would.

And though the fighting may be fake, making it look good is important. During extensive training new troupe members learn Renaissance history, the history of weaponry, and acting. Advanced members participate in fighting classes using blunt-edged equipment, including daggers, swords, and quarter staffs. "It's important to know where [a weapon] comes from and how it was originally used, so we know how to effectively portray [its use]," explains Roger Bello, club vice president.

The Chessmen evolved out of a Renaissance festival held at Miami's Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in 1979. But the concept of living chess games is centuries old; Renaissance-era nobles used servants as chess pieces. The Chessmen count among their nearly 100 members no courtiers but rather executives, actors, a photographer, pool cleaners, and doctors. They range in age from 13 to about 70, with about the same number of women as men.

Festival time (the fall and winter seasons) is coming up, so the Chessmen will participate in many area events, though their schedule isn't set yet. Potential members can watch to see if battle is for them and sign up for fighting classes, which take place from March through August. In the meantime new recruits will play an active role right away as water or body carriers, who help drag the "casualties" off the board.

-- Eileen Jager

The Royal Chessmen meet every Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. at T.Y. Park, 3300 N. Park Rd., Hollywood. Annual membership is $15; classes cost $7 each. Call 305-254-9989.

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Eileen F. Jager

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